Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common soft tissue cancer found in children. In children between the ages of two to six rhabdomyosarcoma tends to develop in the head and neck.
For older children between the ages of 14 – 18 it is seen more often in an extremity or on the trunk. There are two main types of rhabdomyosarcoma – embryonal and alveolar.
Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma is seen most often in young children. It gets its name from the shape of the cells under a microscope that look like the same shape as an embryo. Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma is seen in older children and teens. Both of these are aggressive cancers that require aggressive treatment.
It is believed that rhabdomyosarcoma originates in cells that would normally develop into skeletal muscles, but mutations take place instead and they become cancerous. It has also been linked to mothers smoking marijuana while they are pregnant.
Rhabdomyosarcoma can occur in adults, but it rarely does. As mentioned the cancer can occur in the head and neck, but it can also affect the bladder and reproductive organs.
Signs & Symptoms
There are often no symptoms that someone has rhabdomyosarcoma. Most often a mass is discovered and this leads to testing. By the time a mass is discovered the cancer can be far along. An early diagnosis is important since this is a cancer that can spread very quickly.
Rhabdomyosarcoma is diagnosed using many of the methods used to diagnose other cancers. Family history, blood work and then scans are done. Doctors will determine the location and size of the tumor when possible. A biopsy of the cells will be performed and a final diagnosis can be made once a pathologist has looked at the cells. There are only a few hundred new cases of rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosed each year.
Treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma includes chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. The exact treatment plan will vary by patient based on the location of the tumor and the patient’s overall health, among other factors. In general surgery and radiation are used to treat the tumor site and chemotherapy helps to prevent the cancer from spreading to other areas of the body.
If the cancer has not spread and the tumor can be operated on, the prognosis for someone diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma can be quite good. 70% of those diagnosed have had long-term survival and gone on to live full lives. Unfortunately if the cancer isn’t discovered until after it has spread, then the long-term prognosis drops to approximately 30%.